by Ryan Dembinsky (@itsathinkpiece)
The upside of a great interview subject is a long meaty feature. The downside of a great interview subject is a long meaty feature. In speaking with Craig Wedren, the founding member of seminal indie outfit Shudder to Think, the conversation stretched well beyond the usual 15-20 minute formal allotment and flowed well beyond an hour.
We wound up with a enough pearls of wisdom to practically fill an autobiography – or in this case the A to Z Encyclopedia of Craig - chock full of clever stories and revealing anecdotes about Craig’s endearing personality.
Just a note that this interview in my standard Q&A format would have become an endless fortress of words likely to deter most internet readers.
With that in mind, we’ve devised a quick-hitting bullet point style from A to Z; The Encyclopedia of Craig, to shed light on Craig’s multi-faceted music career - spanning across his solo career, television and film soundtrack work, and of course Shudder to Think. He is a true musician’s musician and one that everybody who loves music as a craft should know a lot more about.
A is for Adult Desire 360 – In accordance with the release of his 2017 solo album Adult Desire, Craig created an innovative virtual reality app that works with either cardboard goggles or more elaborate VR goggles like the Oculus Rift, whereby listeners get to immerse themselves in an audio/visual album experience. One of Craig’s friends scored an early Rift kit as part of being an early Kickstarter investor.
Craig knew he wanted a complementary accompaniment for Adult Desire, so he teamed up with another talented musician named Jacob Richards to code 360-degree visuals, building about an EP’s worth of music and interactive imagery.
The album Adult Desire is an art pop commentary on family, love, and middle age, so the content has a lot of images of the comforts and safety of home. Craig Wedren recovered from Hodgkin’s lymphoma over the past decade, so you’ll hear a lot of gratitude for life and family here as well as grappling with the weirdness of reaching middle age as a musician and artist.
B is for Best Opening Scene Ever – I’m guessing most people have no idea how wide-reaching Craig Wedren film scores span, as it took me by surprise to learn that he is undeniably one of the most in-demand moving picture musicians in the business today.
His work on comedies tend to be some of the most powerful in terms of setting the feel for a scene, as the sheer goofiness of these films add a lot of freedom for getting raunchy on guitar. Here is one of my personal favorite opening movie scenes ever, and it’s in large part due to Craig’s swamp rock blues playing.
C is for Cinematic Influences on Adult Desire – Speaking of soundtrack music, the song that struck me instantly as immensely powerful on Adult Desire is “Safe Home/Fadeland,” which feels like the backbone for the thematic content given the adult hits a lot on middle age. The song sounds immediately like it belongs in a movie at a heartstring pulling moment in a movie pulling for some Oscar Buzz.
Sure enough, Craig wrote this song with the initial intention of putting it in a film that his friend was making, which ultimately came to be Thanks for Sharing starring Mark Ruffalo.
“I was on an acoustic tour with Chris Cornell, so it must have been in about 2012,” Craig explained, “And my friend Stuart [Blumberg] was writing this movie called Thanks for Sharing. I was doing a lot of demos and coming up with different guitar patterns – a lot of which I socked away for this LP. They needed a song. I can’t even remember what it was about, except I think it was meant to be like a four-a.m. type lullaby. It was really late at night and it was so meditative, but it also had this childlike quality. I didn’t overthink anything. It just came together. It was one of those songs that was just done and you move on to another song.”
What really powers this song is the fact that it is one of the very first songs that Craig recorded after a bout with cancer. So, while it’s a softer side of Craig for Shudder fans and unabashedly a little poppy, the emotional qualities of the instrumentation speak volumes about what Craig has been through in the past few years - even before listening to a word of the lyrics.
Craig points out, “It became kind of the hanger for the subject matter – the mannequin to drape the rest of the album around as a lot of the material deals with being in my mid-40s and being a father.”
D if for Don't Sleep on Robert Palmer - What’s been playing in Craig’s heavy rotation lately? You guessed it, Robert Palmer. Over the course of the interview, we discovered a mutual affection for old Robert Palmer. Craig has been pouring over the 1980 release, Clues - an album which took an edgier turn toward a New Wave vibe and we also discussed the epic funk album Sneaking with Sally Down the Alley produced by the late Lowell George of Little Feat.
“He didn't get the respect he deserved,” he said ecstatically. “He was an artist. That album Clues is so awesome. Gary Numan plays on it, and there are a bunch of other weirdos. It's so good!”
E is for an East Coast Jon Brion – A primary theme that came across throughout speaking with Craig Wedren is his passion for all sorts of music styles and an aversion to genre labelling. Even with Shudder - and despite the Dischord affiliation and a relatively specific sound - the band intentionally pushed each subsequent album further into new directions and incorporated things you wouldn’t normally hear in a DC hardcore band: weird time signatures, catchy passages, and thematic consistency in lyric and motif.
In reality, the band was itching to break free of the mold they created for themselves in that the sound was so specific, but their tastes were not. Hence, Craig Wedren changed tack and the second act of his music career affords him the ability to write in every style imaginable. He has since become one of the most in-demand and prolific musicians in the field of soundtracking for film and television - and his CV is unbelievable. I was floored to see how many of my favorite movies he scored like Wet Hot American Summer, School of Rock, Balls and Fury, and Role Models.
I liked this comparison to Jon Brion in an old article about Craig published in Today as another musician’s musician with a prolific yet understated presence in film and television.
F is for the Film Soundtrack Process – “The soundtrack work is so assignment oriented. Restrictive isn’t the right word, because there is a wonderful creative process, but there are really a lot of parameters: You have to fit it in a certain amount of space. You have to make sure all the dialogue can be heard; and of course, it has to serve the story.”
G if for Growing Up (Contemplating Middle Age Adult Desire) - Talking about the recurring motifs on Adult Desire, one particular comment perhaps sums it up best. “It’s this strange time lapse where I feel like I’m 48 and I feel like I’m 8 and I feel like I’m 90. A lot of it has to do with parenting, where you are experiencing youth from the other end of the telescope, but it’s very complex in that it exists in multiple time zones.”
H is for Hey, Are You Going to Burning Man? – I never really pegged Craig for a Burning Man guy, but the sonic cacophony of the late-night desert made its way onto the album. As Craig explains, “I was with my friends at Burning Man a few years ago - maybe three or four years ago - and I was taking all these recordings of the area and the concussive sounds. I don’t remember how it happened, but one night at Burning Man I started singing that melody [for “Fadeland” on Adult Desire] into my phone. I came back with all these weird bass and throbbing recordings.”
“There is this thing that happens late at night at Burning Man, where it almost sounds like bombs going off, but really, it’s just a hundred sound systems happening off in the distance in the desert. Everything is battling with everything else. There becomes this image of war and the desert that I created that became “Fadeland” at the end of “Safe Home.” I don’t think I thought of it going with “Safe Home” at that point, but it’s all related to the same stuff – reflecting backwards from this point in middle age.
I like the experimental and fractured production of all these sounds coming together and that’s sort of what I tried to do with “Fadeland” when “Safe Home” breaks out of the childlike lullaby and into the chaotic “Fadeland” ending.”
I is for Influences on Pony Express Record – “Pony Express was about all four individuals being on the same page. It is a singular sharp pointed vision. There was this unspoken mandate to do something that only we could do and we wanted to do something that had never been done.
“Now, as my wife likes to say, everybody has a navel,” Craig laughs. “So, it’s like, it’s not without its touchstones. In other words, we all think we are so special - like snowflakes -but we are all the same. So, no matter how staunchly original we wanted to be, and arguably were, it’s still very much a 90s record and you can hear the time and the place on the record. You can hear where we were coming from.”
“It’s so funny, I had an interview recently and we were talking about that and I realized that all the influences I told the writer about were the influences on our previous record called Get Your Goat. Those albums are kind of a similar ideas, although Get Your Goat is warm, sensual and melodic whereas Pony Express Record is more nocturnal and sexual and dark.”
“Some of the influences that you can hear or also visualize in Pony Express Record would be Spiderland by Slint, a lot of more experimental noise bands, some twentieth- century classical music like John Cage-type theory, David Lynch, and some early Bad Seeds. There was also a band called Moonshake that we got really into around this time. My Bloody Valentine. It was a lot of off-kilter dark little fireballs.”
“Pony Express Record was the kind of like this lump of coal metaphor, where we started the band in 1987 and this was 1994, so we had been squeezing our ass-cheeks around this thing for seven years, and we finally had major label studio time and we could properly present and record what we had always wanted to do. Finally, out popped a sharp little diamond. We finally really had the chance to get it right, so it felt like the amalgamation of everything that we had been working toward. In retrospect, Pony Express really became the little point of the needle for us.”
J is for Just What the Record Business Needs - The idea of integrating a virtual reality accompaniment for a studio album could be just what the doctor ordered for the music business. With better control over pirating via the app stores, pairing albums with VR content is not only a groundbreaking idea from an artistic standpoint, but it could be a major shift from a business perspective as well..
I know I would gladly pay a few bucks to have a glimpse into what bands and musicians visualize when they listen to their albums. It provides a revealing look into the thematic feeling that you can’t really get any other way.
In the case of Adult Desire, the quote at the start of the app, “Domestic Surrealism is the strange dreamlike beauty of the mundane,” provides a curious backdrop to think about as the overarching synopsis for the music.
K is for Killing the King - One more clip from Role Models: While this scene from the LAIRE battle is comedic in nature, the music really demonstrates how multi-dimensional Craig has become in his soundtrack work. This could easily be used in a dramatic big budget blockbuster just as easily as in a comedy.
L is for Label Challenges - When Shudder to Think left Dischord to record Pony Express Record on Sony/Epic, being on a major afforded the band immense opportunity. They got to go in with half-cooked songs and then flesh out the details in the studio. They also got to record on 2-inch tape with all the time in they needed.
This was finally the opportunity to create the big budget masterpiece. But over time, the label didn’t know what to do with them. By the time they set out to record 50,000 BC - the final Shudder to Think album - the label started asking for hits and pressuring them to to write in their so-called avant-pop style. The band felt stuck, but they tried to meet halfway. While Epic deserves kudos for giving Shudder so much freedom over the years, eventually the old label stories came true and the band got tired and eventually fell out of favor with the label.
M is for Montage – Craig’s current high-profile gig is crafting the musical backdrop for the Netflix homage to 1980s women's wrestling in the hit show, Glow, starring Alison Brie.
This isn’t really a Craig Wedren clip, but among the musical highlights of the show thus far would have to be the use of the song “Dare” for the critical training montage scene in season one. The song was plucked from the original animated Transformers movie (1986) after a long process of the production team trying to identify the perfect piece of childhood nostalgia for the scene - as there is perhaps nothing more quintessentially 80s than a good training montage.
N is for Not Really a Concept Album Type of Guy – “Usually, I don’t even think about thematic content for an album,” Craig explains while detailing some of the earliest songs on Adult Desire.
He stashed several of the tunes away after workshopping demos back when he was newly recovered from his Lymphoma while getting ready to work on scoring Thanks for Sharing.
“I’m not really a concept album type of guy. I grew up in the 70s and 80s and that was kind of a no-no.” He continues, “I don’t think I had even thought about it at all. I was really far away from thinking about making an album. When the time came to make Adult Desire, which was after about a year or maybe two had passed, between the time I wrote a lot of these guitar figures. I felt like I wanted to have a balance relative to the pre-prescribed style of working on music for films, where everything is already there and pre-prescribed in terms of what is happening and how it should sound. Pretty quickly, because of what was happening in my life – being in my mid-40s, career, father, married – the content took shape.”
O if for Oh Yeah, I Actually Do This! – I asked Craig about his personal favorite film or television work and it became clear that despite carving out a very successful career in the field, he is still totally awestruck to have the opportunity to work in the field.
He explains, “I love all my babies. I'm a big fan of the High Art soundtrack. I'm a big fan of Wet Hot American Summer First Day of Camp. I’m a big fan of Glow. It sort of depends what I'm working on at a given point. I’ve reached a point where I often feel like, ‘What have I even done?’ I’ll go on IMDB and be like, wait what did I do there? And then, I’ll be like, ‘Oh yeah, I actually do this!’ I still feel like I’m just getting started even though I’ve done quite a bit of work.”
P is for a Premium on Originality – Coming up in the late 1980s, originality was the name of the game while in Shudder to Think. The band fiercely avoided anything that sounded like another band or that sounded like an existing style of music.
Back then, if you were in a band you were expected to stay in your lane so-to-speak. But as Craig said, “That was not our bliss. We felt like every record we worked on had to be a distinct and unique project with a unique feel. In retrospect, it now feels like more of a complete arc, but back then each album felt totally unique.”
Q is for Quick Hit Early Influences – Discussing Craig’s early upbringing as a musician, you can see the roots for Shudder to Think as the highly original creative outlet and also the early foundation for why he is so successful as a film and TV musician.
“I was a 12-year-old kid and we had a cover band growing up in Cleveland, and we were playing everything. We played everything from the Sex Pistols to Journey and I learned the skill that I like to call ‘convincing mimicry’. We liked anything and everything. We weren't terribly discerning at that point. We were just music junkies. So, you know, I kind of cut my teeth by imitating Ozzy Osbourne and Suzy Sue and whoever else came down the pike. I think that all had the effect of building that mimicry muscle up at a relatively young age.
R is for Reading – As an Avid Reader Craig has been enjoying a Murakami book called Absolutely on Music. The material consists of Murakami interviewing a Japanese conductor, whereby they go through great classical pieces and works that they share a mutual love for eithjer the material or the conductor. Craig is neck-deep in the music of the book, having created a complete Spotify playlist of all the music and conductors as he reads along with the material.
S is for Straightjacket (The Restrictions of Shudder to Think) - When we think of Craig Wedren and his cult hero band, Shudder to Think, it sets a very specific sonic mindset, but one of the key takeaways from the conversation is that he has a voracious appetite for culture and all types of music. He thrives on all sorts of musical styles and has amazing musical proficiency in far more styles than you would ever guess. His forays into film and television soundtrack work have afforded him the opportunity to delve into a much broader palette of interests.
Early on in the band’s career, they felt invigorated as every record felt like a dramatically different thing with varied themes and sound palettes. As time passed, the music remained massively near and dear to their hearts, but with success came more pressure to stay in the Shudder to Think lane so-to-speak. This is a band that liked to progress and change, but the labels wanted the style to remain consistent and of course they wanted commercial success. It started to feel more and more similar. The major label money afforded them the opportunity to make some of their greatest music and give proper attention to detail, but it eventually became confining as the usual pressures that go along with it grew tedious.
As Craig discusses, “Frankly, we didn't want it to be stuck in this kind of straightjacket. We had created this thing which was very dear to us, but it became a very specific thing. So, you wind up having to continue to stick to that one defining style, because now this thing has essentially become a brand.””
T is for The Album Release - Have a look at the Adult Desire record release party from the Long Island Bar in Brooklyn.
U is for Unorthodox Song Request - When working on School of Rock, Richard Linklater reportedly had a tall order for Craig. He wanted a Creed ballad for No Vacancy to play - the arch rival band of Jack Black’s Dewey Finn. Jack Black thinks he nailed it.
V is for a Voracious Consumer of Pop Culture - As somebody who clearly digs into obscure nooks and crannies of different forms of culture and entertainment, Craig provided a bit of a rundown of a few things that have tickled his fancy of late. “I just heard this song last night called “Pretty Baby” by Sassy009 - and I only heard it once - but it was such an awesome song. I also really love the singer from the band Hop Along. I love the band Hop Along, really. They're so good.
W is for Wand (Craig’s Big Budget Feature Film Idea) – What is Wand you ask? For starters, it’s another one of Craig’s solo albums that came out in 2011, but it is also Craig’s BIG budget brainchild for a prospective feature film. Wand is a story about a merman that he describes as, “a movie that is sort of a hero's journey about a merperson who washes up on to the beach after a cataclysmic event has happened in his underwater home. He has amnesia, so he doesn’t remember who he is or where he is from, so he has to go through a series of trials and tribulations to reclaim his sense of self and his mission and direction.”
There are no plans to start production just yet. Anyone with funding or connections: let’s make this happen.
X is for X-Rated App Store Warning - You’ll probably get a laugh when you look through the app store for the Adult Desire 360 virtual reality app, because there is there are no shortage of “adult” virtual reality apps and the name of this one puts you squarely in the market for some VR porn. Rest assured though, this is not a perverse sex app, but rather a thoughtful introspective complement to the music. Stay tuned, as Craig plans to continue to release new tracks from the album on with VR content.
Y is for You Wish You Were at the Wet Hot American Summer Premiere Party -- How fun does this look?
Z is for Zero Dark Thirty (Writing Safe from midnight to 4 am Home for a midnight to 4am scene in a movie) – Craig describes a certain instance whereby he composed the music for a scene in essentially the same setting as the scene itself. While working on Thanks for Sharing, he describes how he was asked to write a piece of music for a contemplative late night scene.
“There was a point where I was full on writing music for Thanks for Sharing and there was a scene that was supposed to take place at midnight or maybe 4 o’clock in the morning. This song just popped out. It was so almost lullaby-simple with a childlike quality to it, but there is something weirdly contemplative and meditative about it. I don’t know if it was because it was so late at night and I was tired and I wasn’t overthinking or if it was just a coincidence that I happened to be writing a song about it being four am late at night, but it just popped out and it was done. Some songs take five years and some songs take five minutes. This was one of those where I sat down at midnight and by 4 am it was finished.